Solar Through the Looking Glass

The bankruptcy of one company -- Solyndra -- is being used by oil and coal company agents to portray solar electricity as a failure. It's an outrage how this story is being spun upside down while solar's success is ignored.

I've always been pro-solar -- I just installed a large system on my roof -- but even I was surprised at a recent Sierra Club meeting by the news that solar has come down so rapidly in price that it's now cheaper than new nuclear, coal or natural gas in California. And as prices shoot down quickly driven by increasing demand, it will compete soon nationwide.

But people have a hard time believing this. I recently told one editor that in over a dozen states you can lease a solar system for your roof at no cost and with immediate guaranteed savings on your utility bill. She just wouldn't believe it. Everyone knows solar is too expensive. I was promoting a free lunch, she said! But it's true -- even in the northeast, as the web sites of SunRun, Sungevity and Solar City, among others, can attest.

I suppose when cell phones first came out costing $4,000 you'd have been laughed at for predicting in a few years cell phones with a contract would be free, or DVD players would go from $500 to $50. But each time solar or any electronics manufacturing volume doubles, the price comes down around 20%.

Is this too much of a good news story? 100,000 people now work in the U.S. solar industry. Solar has been called "the next Saudi Arabia" but the relatively small subsidies we provide it as a nation are made a big issue, more than the far greater subsidies to dirty old fuels. The solar subsidies have fueled huge price decreases while our oil and coal subsidies support ever-increasing prices. But the controversy is about solar? And the conclusion is that green jobs aren't happening?

Ok so the government, starting under President Bush, made a bad bet on Solyndra, which was hurt precisely by the rapidly falling prices of other solar technologies. But it was only 1 percent of the DOE loan program -- every venture capitalist makes bets that fail. Meanwhile, the small government subsidies to solar have enabled booming demand and rapid price reductions. I feel like Lewis Carroll -- the world is truly upside down. Success is failure.

And dare I mention that this technology, when widely adopted, might save New York from building sea walls from climate change or save Rick Perry's state from becoming toast? And that solar creates seven times more jobs than fossil fuel investments? And that its cost can never go up, as the fuel is -- oh my goodness, another free lunch statement -- free?

Isn't it ridiculous that we let the dirty fuel propagandists have the upper hand, and that someone has to intervene to keep the discussion honest? Or maybe we should just give the Saudi Arabia of the future to China.

David Fenton is the CEO of Fenton, a communications firm long involved in renewable energy and climate change.